The Titanic, Majestic and Antelope

A Postcard depicting the RMS Majestic, public domain.

April 14th is a noteworthy date in maritime history — it’s the date the Titanic sent its first distress calls. The news of the impending disaster was first received at right here in Newfoundland at Cape Race.

The Titanic, the unsinkable ship from England’s White Star Line, was not the first of their ships to make news of Newfoundland, though.  18 years earlier, in July 1894, the RMS Majestic made the headlines too.

The RMS Majestic was an impressive 600ft passenger liner from England capable of carrying over 1400 people. In July 1894 it was shuttling passengers from Liverpool to New York. On July 30 it was off the coast of Newfoundland, and so was the fishing schooner Antelope

The Antelope, from Burin, was in its third week at sea.   It was a foggy night, the 8-man crew, captained by John Bugden was anchored off the Grand Banks.  In the small hours of the morning the watch on the Antelope spotted the mammoth RMS Majestic emerging from the fog.  It was on a course directly for them.

Quickly the crew of the Schooner scrambled. They made an attempt to move out of the way but nothing could be done. It was too late. The fisherman jumped from the deck into the open ocean.

As the Majestic slammed into the schooner’s port quarter.  The Antelope was split in two — her entire stern torn away. The men saw their boat torn to pieces around them. They struggled to survive, alone, in the dark North Atlantic night.

The enormous Majestic couldn’t stop.  It sailed onward another mile before being able to come around to the site of the accident.  It dropped lifeboats and, almost miraculously, 7 of the 8 crew were recovered.  One of those recovered, as the newspapers of the time put it, later ‘died of his hurts’.

The chief officer of the Majestic said that the Antelope was completely to blame for the crash as they had no lights and had not responded to the Majestic’s horns.

The Captain Bugden of the Antelope spoke favourably of the crew of the Majestic saying “Every attention was lavished upon us by the officers and crew of the steamship and we were very grateful...”

The Cape Race News Yacht
Communication at Cape Race will always be associated with the Titanic but it was important completely apart from that.  Cape Race was so crucial to the timely movement of transatlantic news that from 1859 to 1866 it became a practice to station a boat (or news yacht) 8-10 miles south of the light.  The yacht provided a means of transferring information between London, Newfoundland and New York... news was taken from the European ships and passed along to New York via telegraph... sort of an early form of the information super-highway.

In the years since, some have asserted that Captain E.J Smith, later captain of the Titanic, helmed the Majestic that night.  It appears true that Smith did captain the Majestic but not until 1895 — one year after the Antelope incident. Newspaper clippings from the time identify Pursell as the Majestic’s captain. 

Just as well, Capt. Smith already has a pretty dubious legacy as it is.


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